The big releases this week are The Road (Sony), Corman McCarthy’s grim novel of a father and son surviving the desolate, savage wasteland of post-apocalypse America, the latest Nicholas Sparks tearjerker Dear John (Sony), with Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried. That’s all well and good and thoroughly covered at every DVD review page on the net (including my own column at MSN Entertainment), so let’s move on to other, more interesting releases.
The archival release of the week is a newly remastered edition of Stagecoach (Criterion), which I review here, but the notable DVD debut is Yesterday Girl (Facets), the debut release in Facets Video’s new “The Alexander Kluge Collection.” 15 discs of feature films and shorts made by the director over the span of 40 years have been announced, scheduled for release one a month through mid-2011. Released in 1966, Yesterday Girl is the film that marks the birth of the New German Cinema in the same way that Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is the first feature the Nouvelle Vague. You can argue technicalities in the years of short films or any of the other features by young German filmmakers in the landmark year that established the aesthetic without receiving the acclaim, but Yesterday Girl, the story of a bright young German woman from East Germany (played by Alexandra Kluge, the director’s younger sister) who arrives penniless and jobless in West Berlin and drifts through a series of jobs, casual affairs and petty crime, was the most internationally acclaimed of these first features and the film that announced the new blood in the stagnant German film industry to the world. I wrote a substantial feature review of the release for the Turner Classic Movies website.
Kluge directs his dramatic scenes with a mix of realism and satirical exaggeration and intersperses them with a series of interludes, from direct address monologues to cinema verite-like sequences to documentary street scenes sped up like silent movie Keystone Kops shenanigans. As the film progresses, his techniques become more cinematically adventurous—music and sound suddenly drop out and scenes play out in an off-putting silence (reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard) and the quotations that served as chapter demarcations turn into ironic commentary on the narrative—and the social and political commentary becomes more insistent but not strident. Kluge is careful not to lose his caustic sense of humor through the social criticism, nor lose sight of Anita, a modern-day Candide falling through the cracks of the economic miracle of West Germany.
No Orchids for Miss Blandish (VCI) – Notorious in its day, this 1948 British adaptation of James Hadley Chase’s novel is a noir-tinged crime drama with lurid edges and an American setting that never quite comes off, thanks to studio-bound shooting and sometimes awkward attempts at American accents and gangster talk. Jack La Rue, who looks like a poor man’s Humphrey Bogart, is given a terrific entrance that establishes him as the cock of the walk and is just fine (if never genuinely commanding) as the tough guy with a sop of a heart under his ruthless front. He’s the nightclub impresario and gangster who kidnaps a jaded heiress (Linden Travers) and falls in love with her, much to the frustration of his partners. Their illicit affair is ostensibly at the heart of the condemnation of the film but their chemistry isn’t all that convincing (or is that neither of them is able to convincingly exude passion for anything?) and the direction by St. John Legh Clowes (who also adapted the novel) never manages to bring a snap to the underworld milieu, a passion to the supposedly mad love, or a savage edge to the mercenary twists.
There’s more fun to be found around the details at the edges of the story: a reporter (Hugh McDermott) who repeatedly pulls a gun while he pursues his story and peeps on a showgirl getting undressed, gang members shacking up with their latest conquest, and (my favorite) a cigarette girl whose outfit includes a zipper that goes right down the front (and gets tested by more than one customer). The novel was remade a number of time, quite memorably by Robert Aldrich as The Grissom Gang. This original screen effort is a strange and somewhat unsatisfying piece of crime cinema but it has its oddball attractions. The image quality is fine, if not particularly noteworthy, and the disc features a video interview with American distributor Richard Gordon and actor Richard Nielson and an additional audio interview with Richard Gordon, each over 30 minutes.
Silver Lode (VCI) – The usually inexpressive John Payne is excellent as the tarnished hero Allan Dwan’s sturdy 1954 western that twists into a nightmare of victimization and mob hysteria. He’s a small town rancher loved by all until his reputation is chipped away when scruffy, trail worn Dan Duryea (a wonderfully sneering, smarmy performance) rides in with an arrest warrant in his pocket and vengeance in his heart. Allan Dwan’s first collaboration with producer Benedict Bogeaus may look on the surface to be a routine 1950s western, but this unusual revenge picture picks up momentum as circumstances and a vicious whispering campaign turn the town against their adopted favorite son. As they transform from friends to bloodthirsty mob, the film turns dark and desperate. The real time countdown (it plays out in just a few hours) helps intensify Payne’s nightmarish flight as he dodges the mob while seeking evidence to prove his innocence.
For a modestly budgeted western, it sports some classy collaborators, including the great cinematographer John Alton (his third act tracking shot makes Payne’s run across town in search of sanctuary a gripping highlight) and art director Van Nest Polglase (Citizen Kane). In hindsight it’s one of the more evocative metaphors for the panic of McCarthy-ism. Lizabeth Scott co-stars as the loyal good girl and Dolores Moran is the no-less loyal (and far more fun) “bad girl,” whose directness makes for an obvious but undeniably satisfying contrast to the hypocrisy of the town’s so-called leading citizens. This new DVD edition includes new featurettes on director Allan Dwan and star John Payne, but it’s unfortunate that VCI did not remaster the film as well. While watchable, the colors are dull, image is unstable and unsteady and there is a distracting inconsistency in the motion, likely the result of an unconverted PAL source rather than a fresh NTSC master. There is significant room for improvement.
“Ever since Father Thomas hanged himself, things haven’t been the same in Dunwich.” It’s lines like this that make Lucio Fulci’s minor 1980 horror classic City of the Living Dead: Special Edition (Blue Underground) so much fun. Though technically a follow-up to his first major hit, Zombie (aka Zombi 2), this is a pseudo-zombie film with walking dead more like malevolent meat puppets from hell. Though set in an isolated town supposedly built on the ruins of the historical Salem, the exteriors were shot in Savannah, Georgia, and it has a southern gothic atmosphere (the interiors, of course, are all shot in Rome, where the European details add another warp to the out-of-place atmosphere). The name of the town, Dunwich, is surely a tribute to Lovecraft, while the story is a strange mix of supernatural weirdness, demonic invasion and rotting corpses hunting down the living with a sense of purpose. The story involves a priest who hangs himself in the cemetery, a New York psychic (Catriona MacColl) who is seemingly killed by a vision (“City of the dead!”) and then comes back to life in a coffin and an insufferable reporter (Christopher George doing his best George Segal impression) who follows her to Dunwich and chews a cigar even when running from rotting monsters. Not that it makes any sense, or that Fulci particularly cares if it does or not. He’s all about victims who vomit up their insides, brains squeezed out of skulls, a maggot storm, a power drill through the head, bleeding eyes, bleeding walls and a priest who hangs himself in the first scene and keeps dropping in (literally) on the film, and he milks every effect for all its worth. And in many cases, far beyond the point of effectiveness; his idea of building tension often comes off as an interminable tease pushed to comic excess. The soundtrack is a weird mix of cyclical giallo themes, electronic stings and distorted outtakes from a jungle adventure (apparently, the demonic dead sound just like warped lions and rabid monkeys). The entertainingly weird festival of gore looks forward to his masterpiece, The Beyond.
Newly remastered from the original negative, the new DVD edition and the Blu-ray debut both feature the documentary “The Making of City of the Living Dead,” featuring interviews with star Catriona MacColl and many of the members of the crew, and a gallery of stills and advertising art. The Blu-ray also includes interview featurettes with Catriona MacColl and co-star Giovanni Lombardo Radice and the retrospective featurette “Memories of the Maestro” with the cast and crew, among the supplements.
Rain Fall (Lionsgate) – Based on a novel by American author Barry Eisler and starring Kippei Shiina as the half-Japanese/half-American U.S. Special Forces operative turned super-assassin John Rain, this slick but bloodless and needlessly murky thriller is a Japanese production reaching for an international audience. Gary Oldman co-stars as the American CIA agent who heads to Japan to catch the assassin before he completes his next assignment, but both of them have ulterior motives. Max Mannix (co-writer of Tokyo Sonata) scripts and directs. The disc lists English 5.1 Dolby Digital, without mentioning that over half the film is in Japanese with English subtitles. Also features bonus interviews.
I review the indie ghost story-as-character piece All My Friends are Funeral Singers (IndiePix) at MSN here.
Also new this week: Mystery Team (Lionsgate), By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume Two (Criterion), Owl and the Sparrow (Image) and Tell Tale (Vivendi).